Indigenous in Ecuador – first impressions of an outsider.

I headed to Ecuador to fulfill a dream of freedom in the high mountains and jungles. But also, I wanted to see what it was really like in a country with a huge percentage of indigenous that is presently developing its’ society. I used to live on Big Mountain Navajo Rez and stayed on other reservations in my travels, and it gave me a great interest in the indigeous experience in the Americas, and one day I’d like to twin that with Scottish clans. But also, the Amazon Basin starts in Ecuador, so I wanted to find out about attitudes towards preservation of the environment. Here’s what I found.

First thing I noticed was that indigenous society was full-on and strong and secondly, that it was genuinely linked to the ecology of the country.

Relatively communal in identity, it kept tribal and ceremonial clothing according to different peoples and often kept itself separate from the Mestizo population, (which, of course, was often as much as 60% indigenous itself) and occasionally non-responsive to outsiders even as they rode together or walked the same streets.

‘Awesome.’ I thought. ‘Hold onto that”

But talking to different folks throughout my time there I also heard how those who had broken from sepratism quickly adapted to the Mestizo world. They were very communicable to me – many of the old folks were particularly open to good communication. They never call themselves indians. That’s derogatory. They are very aware of how different they are from the rest of the world, but are prouder than many indigenous of other countries, having realized their political power of late, and revamped their identity using the support of the recent government of Rafael Correa, who’s’ picture is everywhere.

I asked both indigenous and mestizos about President Rafael Correa and heard very little bad stuff about him. *He is for the people. He brought new roads and infrastructure to the country, the mountains and the jungle. He brought electricity and good water. New bus & train stations. He stopped police corruption. He kicked out dirty politicians. He stands up to America. He invites Julian Assange from the UK.” He sounded like he could walk on water.

So I went up the Andes and paid this one indigenous guide the cost of a pizza to take me up Tungarahua volcano – the highest I’d ever been – and on the way up, we talked. All the way up to about 11,000 feet, the dwellers of the Andes farm terraced fields of crops that will survive at different heights. The slopes are sometimes unimaginable to us even to simply walk upon, let alone to till fields upon. It was explained to me that the indigenous people are not quite as developed as tribes as we may think, but as different ‘peoples’ and that land is bought and sold or simply swapped inside those peoples, then farmed on a subsistence level for food to live off plus surplus to take to Sunday markets, or just down to the cities on any day, to sell for cash.

“What about cropping on new land?” I asked.

New land was indeed constantly developed (or rather, old Incan and pre-Incan land because they had so much more of the mountains populated for farming than now) but it had to be agreed upon by the peoples and also by the government, who kept tight controls, for conservation purposes, on the development of the environment. In fact, in talking with many people, I got the impression that Ecuador was one of the most ecologically conscious countries there was.

In Banos,  the town catered to eco-tourists like me and to Americans and Europeans in general, and I could feel that while most were cool with this, a segment of the population deeply resented it. I travelled a few days in lower-Andes paradise, before I came to the Amazon and the little town of Puyo, where I stayed the night. The moment I got there, I had felt a great change and I was aware that the Amazon was different from other places. . There was a panful innocence, both beautiful and dangerous in the air. It could be felt in the huge rumbling trucks of the ore-mining and oil companies, and the nearby army base, filled with soldiers to be catered to. One just sensed that life here was more pure, but also more cheap.

No-one was cool there. It wasn’t about that. Puyo said ‘Go hug your trees silly eco-man. We are engaged in much bigger things. Give us money.” There’s a lot of money to be made in the jungle. Gold, oil, minerals, precious woods and gems. And the indigenous who come IN from out there to Puyo know that the game is on and that everybody is there to get something out of everybody else. Child hookers, drugs, liquor and machetes. In one night, I caught up on my entertainment, watching and hearing the fights and hustlers. It seemed a shame. Money gets involved and the purity is gone. Indigenous become ‘Indians’ again and folks start saying things that no-one should say. The Amazon seems beautiful until the dollar gets involved.

My next stop was Tena. A wonderful mini-city! More independent of outside interests. 80% indigenous. The innocence was back, and that precious clarity of communication that I felt the deeper in I got to the ‘selva’ showed itself. I’d live there in a heartbeat. I wanted to know though ….. if Correa was so cool with the indigenous, then why the hell did a helicopter open fire on an indigenous demonstration there in 2009, killing people? I saw the bridge, and over it, was an open-air political rally, so I went that night and had a great time with the singing and dancing.

Even though the rally was for an opposing party, everyone seemed to treat President Correa as a beloved boss. And everyone was dying to make excuses for him concerning the slaying of the protesters, saying that it was the state security, not the federal security, which had opened fire. But …. (they always sighed when they came to this point of the conversation)…. he tried to have it both ways, they said, both working for the people, and also reaping the money to do so from the exploitation of oil and minerals, which were being nationalized and which were eroding the indigenous way of life in the selva. He had passed a law to open these jungles up to new development to feed the state machine, and they were not going to let it happen. That was why they blocked the bridge to stop the heavy machines. And that was when they opened fire.

I got myself a mate from the local indiginas to take me to his village, and into the jungle. We trekked for a long time and the jungle got thicker, with him calling up into the canopy with different calls to attracts hordes and swarms of different animals down to us. Sound is more important than sight it seems in selva this thick. Monkeys and toucans, giant lizards and snakes. He ate the ant larvae but I wouldn’t cos I don’t wanna eat something which is still alive. We let termites crawl up our arms like black ink then rubbed them into the skin to keep away the mosquitos, and I climbed with him up into the canopy to watch the world up there.

“Do indigenous people like the Europeans and Americans that come here and tell them to stop chopping down the rainforest?” I asked. (Because I always saw it as arrogant. Like saying ‘Hey! We chopped down ours and got rich, so you have all the trees that are left, so you have to stay poor now and not touch them”.)

He got really serious and told me they were proud to work with them. They really did, he said, consider the jungle and forests to be the most wonderful gift they had and did not feel patronized. Also, it seemed, a line was drawn by the government. People below a certain income level, were allowed to clear small patches of forest, especially if it was their tribal lands, for subsistence farming. They were not the proble,. He said few people thought they were and if I had thought that, then I was mistaken. And for every old-growth tree, even on your own land, that you cleared, you had a legal responsibility to plant 2 more within 10 years. The government, the white eco-folks and the indigenous were doing a good job of preserving the beloved forest here in Ecuador, he said.

“OK so if Correa is so good, then what happened on the bridge?” I asked.

He sighed, and explained.

Correa was a double edged sword. The way he paid for everything was with state owned oil. I had ascertained that already, but he told me more. The Yasuni Reserve was the best example. It’s a great tract of land to the East that is heavy jungle and populated by an alliance of tribes. But a ways back they found it rich in oil. Correa couldn’t just move on into the jungle and wreck it, for he is the ‘people’s president’, and pro-indigenous. So he brought in a great effort to acquire the latest technology so that the oil could be removed horizontally through pipes below the ground. A little like fracking I guess. So they did that but the pollution was unavoidable and so now the indigenous live in the protected reserve, but with petrochemicals destroying their health through the water and food supplies. He said cancer was big. Well the initiative that the indigenous of Tena opposed was seen much like this, except it was based around water rights. The locals and the indigenous of the area were to have second priority as to the rights to natural water sources. They would be second to big new industry , oil and mining.

They blamed Correa for pushing it on them, even to the extent of shooting them in an open demonstration. All over Ecuador, Peru and parts of Brazil, he told me, a movement was occurring whereby the indigenous were growing as a political power bloc. And even though governments were trying to keep up with them and grant them rights, the indigenous were outgrowing their efforts. It sounded like the civil rights movements when it got more separatist in the late 60’s.

“So what happened after the incident on the bridge?”

They got through and started building the roads into the jungle. And they gave the tribes a gift in recompense.

He took me to see the gift – 5 pink, new suburban-American styled houses with plumbing and electricity, sitting in the middle of the swamp. Each house cost 5000 dollars and presently were all empty. I don’t know how long they’d been there.

We went to catch a fish and eat it with his family. They had turned their lodge in the village centering an open lodge so that eco-tourists could stay, so as we ate this delicious Tilapia, I asked La Senora about that.  According to her, the government had come to them and said ‘Look. We wanna help the indigenous. So let us give you money to start enterprises with eco-tourism to provide you with cash and with access to the outside. they accepted, made the parts of the village that eco-tourists would go to nice and clean and drinking-water-safe, then started to somewhat accommodate them. She said it had revolutionized her life, for that, and the 10 year rise before that, had allowed the people to have a reason to revive their traditions that were being lost – the making of ceremonial jewelry from local plants and woods, the artesanias, gold mining by the indigenous themselves for gold for jewelry, dances and traditional shamanic practices that they could include the foreigners in, and she said they had gained many supporters.

“So you don’t personally feel like you are in a cage to be stared at?” I asked, always painfully sensitive to how I remember feeling when Americans came to Scotland and asked us to ‘Braveheart out’ too much.

Not for her or her friends. It had preserved the forest and it had allowed them to stop working the land from dawn till dusk and she knew her grandchildren would be able to go to college and would bring their knowledge of nature into bearing with a background in science.

I left them all and came away with a feeling that it depends which indigenous you are in Ecuador as ti what your experience is, and I hope to find out more another day. But, without any particular corroboration of these perceptions as fact, this was an outsiders’ perspective. Please feel free to comment on any additional info or other perspectives, as I want to return through time and get more involved, as I feel a great kinship with indigenous people in these parts of the world.

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